Media Expert Ken Auletta Urges Optimism about Journalism’s Future

Nov 12011

New Yorker columnist and media critic Ken Auletta urged journalists around the world to “lean forward” into the future by embracing the digital age while also holding fast to their traditional role as story tellers and “intelligent agents.”

Auletta spoke to 600 media leaders and luminaries at the International Center for Journalists’ Annual Awards Dinner. The awards recognize those who have maintained the highest journalistic standards, despite daunting obstacles, to produce stories that have improved their societies.

Auletta said the digital age poses challenges to traditional media. The Internet, he said, can reduce news to a commodity and rob the news media of revenues because so much information is offered for free. That pessimism has prompted many in the industry to “lean backward” and blame digital media companies for “ruining their businesses,” he said.

But he said the “digital realm is also our friend.” It presents opportunities to broaden the audience for news and “offer online what we cannot offer in a newspaper or magazine—an archive, full motion video, interaction with our audience, and elegant portability via our mobile phones and tablets.”

To combat commodity news, journalism must be “distinctive,” he said, “without sacrificing facts or sensationalizing.” He urged journalists to add value to their work by being good multimedia story tellers. Journalists, he said, also need to show “humility.” As he put it, “You can’t be a good reporter unless you ask questions and genuinely listen to the answers, because you don’t assume you know the answer.”

In the new era, Auletta said, journalists must believe in their role as “intelligent agents” who sift through contradictory statements and facts using standards of fairness, multiple sources and context. “We don’t just throw stuff at the wall and leave it to citizens to sort out,” he said. Unlike Wikileaks, journalists “don’t print material that could endanger lives.”

Auletta, the author of 11 books and the New Yorker’s "Annals of Communications" column, said there were many reasons for optimism about the future of journalism. He said those included the courage of journalists around the world such as the evening’s award winners – Mexican reporters Rocío Idalia Gallegos Rodríguez and Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, Cambodian filmmaker Thet Sambath and ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, who received ICFJ’s Founders Award for Excellence in Journalism.

“I can stand before you this evening and lean back, offering multiple reasons to be pessimistic,” he said. “I could total up the media companies that have – and will – go bust; the lost journalistic jobs; the fact that so much journalism is superficial and gossipy, and lament how the digital world’s ability to measure what our readers or viewers like will compel editors to lean on us to produce more fluff.”

But journalists don’t have to be pessimistic, Auletta said. “I’d rather stand before you and lean forward. Attending a dinner like this, how could you not be optimistic when you see journalists who believe that what they do is a calling, who risked their lives and livelihoods to report.”